India’s Catholic Church will open its official Christmas celebrations in the company of someone who isn’t very convinced of its social role: Union home minister Rajnath Singh.
Singh will be the chief guest at the annual Christmas dinner of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, the top episcopal body.
In March this year, Singh had slammed conversions — a harsh attack of the Church straight from the government that landed in the midst of a tough cultural climate.
Singh told a conference of the National Commission for Minorities in New Delhi that he did not understand why the Church’s service to poor had to be tied to conversion to Christianity. “Service of humanity is fine, but why conversions? Why are religious conversions being carried out?” Singh asked. “Who could tolerate an attempt to change the demography of a country?”
The remarks came even as a series of attacks at Christian places raised fears about a deliberate campaign to target Christians. Yet, church leaders speak highly of a man whom they have met regularly, seeking protection. “I found in him a very honest and a sincere person,” Joseph Chinnayyan, the CBCI’s deputy secretary general, told HT.
When three senior Church leaders recently went to brief Singh, they made an off-the-cuff request to him to attend this year’s Christmas party, which Singh accepted.
Getting the minister to attend the event may have been impromptu but the Church has laboured to build a political bridge with the BJP.
In February, the Syro-Malabar Church got Prime Minister Narendra Modi to open a national event to celebrate the canonisation of two Indian saints by the Vatican. It was here that the nation heard the first clear condemnation of attacks at Christian places. Every citizen, the PM said, had the “undeniable” right to follow any faith, without “coercion” or “undue influence”.
The Church vehemently denies forced conversion. “Christians are 2-3% of the population. That would not have been the number if there were mass conversions,” said Jacob Barnabas, the bishop of Gurgaon. Chinnayyan said the home minister “will learn about what we do”.
With attacks slowing down, things look better now, Barnabas said, adding: “but I don’t know if it will precipitate again”.